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A story is told (which I heard from a reliable source from two generations ago) that the Chafetz Chaim was once a guest at an inn which had only one other guest. The innkeeper’s goblet went missing and the woman approached the Chafetz Chaim accusingly.

What was the Chafetz Chaim to do? Without violating shemiras halashon, how could he prove to the innkeeper that he was not the culprit?


Said the man who had not a fiber of hubris in his body and whose very essence was humility, “But I am the Chafetz Chaim, how could I steal?”

At first blush it appears that the Chafetz Chaim was flaunting his credentials to exonerate himself. Not the kind of conduct one would expect from such a humble individual. But as Reb Nisson Alpert, zt”l, explained, humility does not mean a sense that I am nothing. Although this is indeed the conventional mindset; this is not humility but foolishness.

Humility means a keen awareness of who you are and how this stature behooves that you act accordingly. Thus, how could the Chafetz Chaim, of all people, be guilty of stealing?

More contemporaneously, after one evening session of the Knessia Gedola in 1981, I approached Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky – one of the most revered of the gedolim featured at the assemblage – to discuss the subject of humility. And these were the words that he said to me, “I was called up to the podium with the description Maran, Rosh Hayeshiva, HaGaon Hagadol [Our master, the dean, the tremendous genius…” und ich been takka a gaon [and, indeed, I am a genius]….” I thought I would keel over from what I heard until Reb Yaakov explained – no differently from the Chafetz Chaim – I am aware of my strengths and these oblige me to act accordingly. If I would be ignorant of them of what service would I be?”

At this juncture it would be worthwhile to repeat what we wrote at the outset of this series in the name of Rav Yisrael Salanter. The lesson is that humility does not mean judging ourselves in comparison with others, but in accord with our own personal capabilities and the tasks we believe God has allocated for us. As Reb Yisrael said about himself, “I know that I have the mental capacity of a thousand men, but because of that, my obligation is also that of a thousand men.”

Because humility is so often confused with low self-esteem, the Chazon Ish instructed, “People are mistaken in thinking that humility means to think of oneself as an ignorant boor, even when such is surely not the case. Humility means that a person realizes his true worth. If one is a great Torah scholar, he should know this and conduct himself in a manner commensurate with his true understanding – but he must not seek honor and glory because of it, for this [accomplishment] is his purpose in life.” Thus humility means knowing our strengths but not becoming arrogant because of them.

In this light, the following initially-confounding story not only makes sense, but sets an enviable ideal. A certain chassidic rebbe would closet himself in a room before giving a speech and repeat, “You are the greatest scholar, the most inspiring lecturer, a master of formulation, etc.”

Why? Indeed how could anyone subject themselves to such self-adulation? The rebbe explained, “The words sound ridiculous when I say them to myself, and I want to accustom myself to their sounding ridiculous when said by others.”

As we are not endowed with this rebbe’s talent to belittle and outright ignore the superlatives occasionally directed toward us, we should be very careful to correct flattery that is untrue. The Talmud forbids a person from accepting praise that is untrue, for reasons of both truthfulness and humility.

On the contrary, we should minimize our accomplishments in our own eyes, understanding that it was for this very purpose that we were created and doing good is the very reason why we were born. Otherwise, we are deserving of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s barb about a political rival whose humility did not impress him: “He is a modest man who has much to be modest about.”

To conclude this expanded series upon humility I wish to repeat an insight that I heard from Rabbi Meir Kahana, zt”l – one that he was (understandably) very fond of retelling. “We are taught,” he would explain, “that the Torah was given on the humblest of all mountains, instead of upon a majestic peak or atop a towering range, in order to teach humility.

“One Rebbe inquired, if the Torah wished to teach humility, why wasn’t it given in a valley?” And he replied, ‘The Torah wished to instruct to be humble and lowly…but not that we should be stepped upon!’ ”

Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!

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Rabbi Hanoch Teller is the award-winning producer of three films, a popular teacher in Jerusalem yeshivos and seminaries, and the author of 28 books, the latest entitled Heroic Children, chronicling the lives of nine child survivors of the Holocaust. Rabbi Teller is also a senior docent in Yad Vashem and is frequently invited to lecture to different communities throughout the world.